Free Samples (2012)
Directed by Jay Gammill
Written by Jim Beggarly
Starring Jess Weixler, Halley Feiffer, Jesse Eisenberg, Keir O’Donnell, Jocelin Donahue, Whitney Able, with Jason Ritter and Tippi Hedren
Do the people we meet influence who we are? The obvious answer is yes, they do – simple. But who really influences us, and how? Does everyone have equal input in how we develop as a person? Clearly not – those who surround us with regularity by choice or by circumstance clearly have a more potent impact than those we meet in passing. But that’s not to say we can’t find value in random encounters.
Director Jay Gammill and writer Jim Beggarly attempt to explore the relationships we develop (or fail to develop) in their ingenious new film Free Samples. On the surface, the film is about Jillian (Jess Weixler) a law school dropout (or semi-dropout – she’s “taking a semester off”) who is spending a day filling in for a friend (Halley Feiffer) who runs an ice cream truck that only distributes free samples (“they’re testing this product”). She encounters a myriad of colorful visitors to the truck, all while battling a hangover – and, naturally, longing for a cup of coffee and a cell phone charger.
An ice cream truck is something that exists, sure. One that gives out free samples, and only free samples, refusing money even when offered? Alright. But such a truck that has both regular and first time customers (indicating it’s in the same place every day…but some of the people in this neighborhood are visiting)? Okay, fine. But the location is…a parking lot in nowheresville, LA? A church parking lot? Come on.
Free Samples is a film that quickly leaves the literal world behind for one that is constructed of metaphor. The opening of the film, as our main character Jillian bellies up to the bar with a collection of friends and strangers, drinking her way into the rabbit hole, gives way to a series of scenes and encounters existing solely on the plane of dream-logic, in which each and every exchange has two meanings – both the literal surface meaning, and a deeper one. (And as if to remove all doubt that the film is a variation on Alice in Wonderland, the first customers Jillian serves are identical twins – Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?) As Jillian combats her hangover in the purgatory metaphor that is this filthy ice-cream truck, she lives a day in the life of each and every person on the planet. Jillian, quite simply, becomes us.
The title of the film refers, overtly, to the ice cream samples Jillian is handing out to the denizens of this backwater LA block. However, the true meaning of the film exists a step below, in the “free samples” being handed to Jillian by each and every person to approach her window. Some have a deep and profound impact on her; others are annoying, offensive, bizarre, and wise – but each is memorable, and each, whether a friend she’s known for a long time or a stranger she is destined only to know for a thirty second transaction, provides a shard of a shattered mirror to Jillian. By the end of her day, she has what she needs to construct an honest reflection of herself – and to decide whether or not she likes what she sees.
A boy who demands both types of ice cream lies to his mother about Jillian, and then flips her off (behind his mother’s back, natch). He’s upset not to have what he wants, and lashes out in an immature, yet primally effective, way.
Two men ask for stamps – at separate times. This is an ice cream truck. Neither is satisfied – they expect the unreasonable and find themselves victims of their expectations.
A friend (Jason Ritter) approaches – his dream is to wait on a customer with no pants on. Jillian helps him live this dream, and he finds that living his dream is not all he’d hoped. Yet he blames it on her.
A guy from the bar the night before (Jesse Eisenberg) – he claims he’d asked Jillian out, and she’d accepted. Sure, why not? She has no recollection of the night before, including sleeping naked in a bed next to this man – why question that she owes him a date? He’s confident and cool, collected and intelligent – but what guy isn’t, after a girl has already accepted a date? What if he never had to ask her, just convince her the next day that he did?
Or how about the old woman (Tippi Hedren) – a Hollywood actress who lived the dream (and lived to tell about it)? Oh the stories she tells; the vanity she displays. Too proud to go to a home, despite her apparent lack of independence and waning mental faculties. Oh, she is so wise – so full of hindsight that Jillian can’t help but hope to find some foresight in her words.
Yes, despite spending the day distributing ice cream, it is Jillian that receives the free samples. It is the flavors of people and personalities that she encounter that give her a taste of what’s out there. And just as any of us will still take a vanilla sample having had vanilla countless times before, Jillian receives valuable insight from people she knows well, just as she does from people she is just meeting.
Does Jillian change? Does she take the sage advice from the old woman, or the bizarrely forward advice of the confident man who has apparently asked her out? Sorry, the film isn’t as concerned with those answers as it is with the questions. The joy of many indie films is that they can provide an honest mirror for us. Instead of the funhouse version of ourselves that we pay Hollywood hand over fist for, independent films provide raw and perceptive insights into who we are and how we interact with our world – and vice versa. It is by drawing attention, carefully and cleverly, to the one-off interactions that we have with people in our daily lives – whether they be friends, family, or total strangers – that Free Samples provides it’s most telling and sincere comment. And it is thus that the film provides, in 80 minutes, what it takes a lifetime for most people to gain – and even then, without conscious knowledge.
Free Samples is not about Jillian. Jess Weixler gives a fantastic performance, playing a girl who is at once totally confident and totally lost, absolutely terrified of the world yet totally self assured, reliant on others yet quintessentially independent. But it is these idiosyncrasies that make Jillian a metaphor for us. She is caustic and sarcastic, unpleasant and bordering on unbearable. But she is also smart. Also funny. Also intensely vulnerable. This ice cream truck becomes a shell for her. When she is inside, the world cannot touch her. But when she steps out, whether for a smoke, to find a phone, to talk to someone – Jillian loses her shell.
So who are we? Aren’t we all people who rely on routine? The norm shelters us from confrontation – both with ourselves and with others. When our schedule is shaken, when we step back, we see ourselves through the prism of those things that break the schedule. The people we encounter every single day impact our lives in ways we cannot begin to understand.
Free Samples is well made, wearing its indie-film limitations as a badge of honor. The production’s shoot from the hip feel echoes Jillian’s lifestyle. Though partially motivated by budgetary limitations, largely staying in one location and allowing the cast to change around allows for the feeling that Jillian is stuck; a rock in a stream. The cinematography and production design go a long way toward creating interesting visuals in what could otherwise have been a mundane film. The performances are universally good, as well, with both newcomers and established stars alike imbuing their moments with meaning. Jess Weixler, especially, carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders, gives Jillian the depth and intelligence that makes her a real, believable person, despite her rather unbelievable circumstances. She keeps this wonderland grounded.
Free Samples is a charming comedy, a comment on this generation’s penchant for quarter-life crises, and an opportunity for reflection on our relationships and what we take from them (or make of them). Give it a try.